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April 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal


Accessing Alberta aspen

George Unrau has built a successful aspen lumber sawmill operation in northern Alberta, with the mill having its own logging show to boot, and an innovative energy system possibly on the way.

By Tony Kryzanowski

George Unrau of Ridgeview Mills: “This sawmill has exceeded my expectations, and now I want to push it to see where it leads us.”

Someone once said that life is like a box of chocolates because you never know what you are going to get. That saying certainly fits the history of Ridgeview Mills in the far reaches of northern Alberta.

Mill owner George Unrau’s desire to quit working in camps and be closer to his family has resulted in one of only a handful of successful, exclusively aspen sawmills in Canada. He owns the sawmill with his wife, Sara.

Unrau’s close association with a local remanufacturer has also provided the sawmill with an outlet for its cants, which represents a significant cost savings to the sawmill, given its location near the town of La Crete, in northern Alberta. La Crete is one of the last populated areas in the province before reaching the Northwest Territories border, and is about an eight-hour drive from Edmonton.

“This sawmill has exceeded my expectations and now I want to push it to see where it leads us,” says Unrau. “I love a challenge. I worked for quite a few years at a sawmill, so I had a bit of an idea how it worked. But I never expected to own a sawmill one day.”

The most recent logging equipment purchase at Ridgeview Mills was a John Deere 2554 carrier and Waratah HTH 622 processor head. Also handling things out in the bush is a Timberjack 618 feller buncher, a John Deere 748 skidder and several crawler dozers.

The company has control over its wood supply since it operates both a logging division and a sawmill. Several family members work at Ridgeview Mills. George’s son Jason looks after the logging business, while another son, Terry, works in the sawmill. Daughter Shelly, who is still in school, helps to keep the place tidy. The plan all along was to create a family business, which should come as no surprise considering the area. La Crete was largely settled by Mennonites, a Christian group with a strong focus on church and family.

After quitting camp life and unable to find a job in La Crete, Unrau purchased a portable sawmill and began sawing lumber for private landowners. Ten years ago, he established a permanent sawmill based on aspen and cut one million board feet his first year.

“There was nobody in aspen when I started except for another small mill, and he has since given up,” says Unrau. “Plus there wasn’t enough conifer to go around. So that’s why I started with aspen.”

With the Waratah HTH 622, logs are processed to 10-, 17- and 21-foot lengths in the bush. They are then bucked to eight- and 10-foot lengths at the mill. Logs average about 12 inches in diameter.

The La Crete area is blessed with a huge aspen resource, enough to support the largest OSB plant in the world, Footner Forest Products in nearby High Level, as well as the Daishowa-Marubeni (DMI) pulp mill two hours south in Peace River.

Ridgeview Mills harvests about 140,000 cubic metres of aspen per year. About 56,000 cubic metres comes from a provincial commercial timber permit area, with the remainder harvested from private land. About 50 per cent can be used as sawlogs. The rest is processed into chips.

As a hardwood that tends to grow rather crooked with plenty of limbs, there is no doubt that aspen is a lot more challenging to work with than conifers, says Unrau. “It’s a big challenge to survive in aspen because there is a lot of waste,” he says. “Our recovery isn’t nearly the recovery you get from softwood. With softwood, you can easily achieve 200 board feet per ton, whereas with aspen, it is usually under 200.” The biggest challenge is to utilize as much fibre as possible.

At Ridgeview, the recovery process begins in the bush, where the company operates a Timberjack 618 feller buncher, John Deere 748 skidder, a John Deere 2554 carrier with a HTH 622 Waratah processor head, and a couple of crawler dozers. Logs are processed to 10-, 17- and 21-foot lengths in the bush, which are then bucked to eight- and 10-foot lengths at the mill. They average 12 inches in diameter. Material too crooked to produce a sawlog is sold either to Footner Forest Products for use in OSB or chipped and sold to DMI for pulp manufacturing.

The company’s most recent logging fleet purchase is its John Deere carrier and HTH 622 Waratah processor head. Unrau says the company was very familiar with the Waratah head’s capabilities; prior to purchasing their own unit, they had a processing sub-contractor who was using an identical head. They were familiar with its performance since they were responsible for maintaining the head while it worked for them.

“We had very few problems with that head,” says Unrau, “and that kind of got me thinking that we should get one as well. Our operator was also in favour of the Waratah.” He adds that it has performed well on a steady aspen diet, and can handle the tough going.

Unrau has essentially built his sawmill over the past decade, purchasing used and reconditioned equipment. In 2000, the company spent $600,000 to complete revamp the mill’s design and components. “When I first started, our lumber was used strictly for pallet stock,” says Unrau. “Now, a significant amount also goes into hardwood flooring, furniture stock, and panelboard.”

The biggest production items at the mill are 3.5 by six-inch and 5.5 by six-inch cants, in eight- and 10-foot lengths. Ridgeview Mills now produces about eight million board feet of lumber per year, with production growing steadily.

The mill operates two lines. After debarking and bucking, large logs over 12 inches in diameter are processed through a Coutts headrig, while logs between six and 12 inches are processed through a Forano scragg mill. The mill has the capability of resawing sideboards to recover lumber down to a 1x4. Wood fibre with no lumber potential is conveyed to a chipper.

“We try to utilize as much as possible,” says Unrau. That includes working to find a use for all the sawmill’s waste wood that is currently burnt in a beehive burner. Ridgeview Mills is seriously investigating the possibility of purchasing a waste wood burner and power generator. Called the Turbion System Power Generation unit, Unrau says it will supply power to the sawmill, and generate power for sale to the provincial grid during those hours when the mill is shut down. Alberta has a deregulated power generating industry and encourages private power generation projects. With an initial investment of about $800,000, Unrau estimates that the system will take about 10 years to pay for itself, plus he will be able to decommission his beehive burner.

The majority of lumber produced by Ridgeview Mills is currently sold to remanufacturing facilities in Dawson Creek, BC or Edmonton. However, the company has forged a strong working relationship with a local secondary manufacturer, Aspen Valley Lumber Ltd. Owned by Johnny and Joyce Wieler, it is only a few kilometres from Ridgeview Mills. Johnny joined Ridgeview Mills as the company bookkeeper in 1998 and also handled lumber sales. From his vantage point, he concluded that there was an opportunity to remanufacture—on a local basis—the material being generated by Ridgeview, providing jobs to local residents.

So in 1999, the Wielers established Aspen Valley Lumber to produce kiln dried aspen and precut aspen pallet stock. This provided Unrau with a local purchaser of a significant portion of his production. Wieler continues to work as Ridgeview Mills’ bookkeeper, but also conducts his own lumber sales for Aspen Valley Lumber from the sawmill office.

Unrau says that given the cost of transportation from La Crete, he’d be happy to sell his entire production to Aspen Valley Lumber.

This strategic alliance resembles the cluster business model practised extensively in some European countries, some of which don’t even have a primary forest industry. The concept is to keep unit costs down by having a cluster of forest product manufacturers working in close proximity to each other. This minimizes transportation costs, making remanufactured forest products more cost competitive. The model has worked very successfully in countries like Denmark and Germany.

Unrau says his focus now, in both the logging and sawmilling branches of his company, is on efficiency and recovery—and he’s looking forward to see where the business takes him next.


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